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A Catawba alumna begins Ph.D. program, shares lessons learned

Catawba College News Service

Brooke Baumgarten, a 2016 alumnus, majored in chemistry at Catawba and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry with a concentration in forensic science at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in the fall of 2016. She has learned much since beginning that program and agreed to share her responses to our questions in the first person.

Q: Why did you choose to pursue graduate study in this particular field?

A: Honestly, I have been in love with forensic science for a very long time. My high school English teacher probably hated me because any time we were required to write a research paper, mine always discussed some aspect of forensic science. I used to talk to my uncle, who worked for the FBI as a forensic chemist, during his summers when he wasn’t teaching, about how to get started on my dreams. He told me to stick to either chemistry or biology as a degree and focus my concentration once I got to graduate school. As silly as it sounds, I have been involving myself in anything that would get me to my final goal ever since.

Q: Why did you choose your particular school?

A: The University of Central Florida was one of only three schools in the U.S. that offered a Ph.D. in chemistry with a concentration in forensic science. I figured that if I hated forensics, at least I loved chemistry and I would have that degree to fall back on if anything happened.

Q: Do you feel like Catawba prepared you for graduate school?  If so, how – please give some examples of how you felt “big school ready.”

A: The smallness of Catawba did and didn’t fully prepare me for life at graduate school. On one hand, there are a few undergraduate classes I have to audit here, and the class sizes are so large that I hate going to class and sometimes I get overwhelmed.

On the other hand, I became close to my professors. I became used to visiting them in their offices to discuss my studies, to ask for help, and to discuss my life if need be. I have taken this ability to talk to my professors to graduate school, and have quickly made close ties with many of the professors who are not involved in my research because I am one of the only students who goes to their offices to discuss tests, homework or to ask for help.

I quickly found out that because of the small class sizes at Catawba, I was able to ask questions and get a full understanding of the different subjects. I am often teaching some of my fellow classmates about concepts they may not understand.

Catawba’s small class sizes also gave me the opportunity to learn about all the different instruments within the science department. Not just learn about them though, I got to use all of them as well, and I learned how to use them correctly. I have found that many other students in my program here only know about the instruments through lectures, and because of this, they sometimes have a harder time completely understanding the material.

Q: What has been most challenging for you in your new studies?

A: I have had the hardest time balancing my time. In my first semester, I did not have research, nor did I have to teach like many of the other students. Because of this, I only had my graduate classes and undergraduate classes. I had a lot of free time on my hands, and I did not spend that free time at school like I should have. This was a huge mistake.

In graduate school, there isn’t academic probation like in undergrad, and anything below a B is considered an F. If you fail any of your classes, you don’t get to stay with the program. There are also less grades. In my graduate level analytical class, I had completion homework grades, three tests and a final. When I got my second test back, I realized I needed to kick my butt back into gear. I needed to get back into the “mood” of school, and I needed to figure out how to love learning again, or I wouldn’t make it.

Q: What sort of career do you hope to pursue with your degree?

A: This may sound strange, but graduate school is a way for me to postpone completely deciding what to do with my life. I am still working towards bettering my future, but going to graduate school has allowed me to take a step back and figure out what I love doing.

I know that I want to either work for the FBI or military doing forensic chemistry, but what I haven’t figured out yet is whether I want to continue to do research in either place, or whether I want to analyze samples, or teach others how to do the chemistry. Once I have my Ph.D., many doors open for me, and as I continue with my research, I can decide what I most enjoy.

Q: What advice would you give to current Catawba students who might want to pursue graduate school?

A: Do it! This experience has been one of the most challenging experiences I have ever had. I think during the first semester I called my mom or my Catawba chemistry professor Dr. Carol (Miderski) and cried at least once a month. It’s stressful, and I missed having my chemistry family from Catawba.

However, saying all this, I have met some amazing people, and I have figured out just how smart I am not. Being here has made me want to learn, want to better myself and my education, and want to become as smart as many of my peers and professors. I have made new friends, many of whom are not the people I ever imagined being friends with. This experience has helped me become more independent. And, I have learned how to push myself and how not to procrastinate as badly as I did while at Catawba.

Q: Is there anything that we didn’t ask you that you want to share? Please do.

A: This isn’t necessarily advice about graduate school, but about something I learned while being here. Moving to a new place is scary, and sometimes it brings out the shyness inside.

The first week I was here, I picked a calm place outside of campus. Every night for a week, I went out and met someone new. Then, those people introduced me to their friends and so on. I knew if I didn’t go out, I would sit home alone and not make friends.

These friends I made the first week are not chemists, some aren’t even students, but whenever I feel tired of school or hopeless, they give me a nice breath of fresh air. They even help me study for my exams and ask me to teach them, knowing that teaching is the best way to learn.

This might not work for everyone, but sometimes I think that if I had not forced myself to get involved in a place outside of the science department, I would not have made it past my first semester

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